Alberta Energy Minister and Canadian Energy Centre Ltd. Director Sonya Savage, at left (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

It turns out the so-called Canadian Energy Centre, as the Kenney Government’s $30-million subsidized lobbying campaign for the petroleum industry is now to be known, has been set up as a private corporation.

Previously commonly referred to by both friends and foes as the Energy War Room, the new corporation is supposedly intended to target “a deceitful campaign to landlock the oilsands,” as Energy Minister Sonya Savage described opposition to Alberta’s pipeline demands in her press release Wednesday announcing appointment of former journalist and payday loan lobbyist Tom Olsen as the entity’s managing director.

Alberta Justice minister and CECL Director Doug Schweitzer (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

It’s interesting that the press release passed so lightly over the corporate structure of the government-owned private corporation, a legal formulation for a government front company that can fairly be described as both sketchy and bizarre.

“I think it would look rather unusual to have a corporation called War Room Inc.,” Ms. Savage told a CTV reporter on Wednesday. But that turned out to have been a bit of a diversion for those who assumed, as I did, that this must be a Crown corporation, given that the Crown owns it, or at least provided the dough to set it up.

Instead, as CBC investigative reporter Charles Rusnell revealed in a series of tweets yesterday, the War Room will be a private corporation known as Canadian Energy Centre Ltd., legally headquartered in the 8th Avenue offices of Calgary law firm Burnet, Duckworth & Palmer LLP.

Alberta Environment Minister and CECL Director Jason Nixon (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

The directors of the corporation listed on its incorporation papers, a copy of which was attached to one of Mr. Rusnell’s tweets, are a trio of characters named Jason Nixon, Doug Schweitzer and Sonya Savage. Ms. Savage, of course, has already been introduced in this post. Mr. Nixon is the minister of environment and parks and the Government House Leader in the Legislature. Mr. Schweitzer is Justice Minister and Attorney General of Alberta.

Mr. Rusnell noted that CECL’s curious corporate structure “means it’s not subject to Freedom of Info, so no way for opposition researchers, media or public to ferret out info.”

By yesterday afternoon, the United Conservative Party Government had refined its talking point to explain this shady sounding arrangement.

Newly appointed CECL Managing Director Tom Olsen (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

The CEC’s internal operations are not subject to FOIP, as this would provide a tactical and/or strategic advantage to the very foreign-funded special interests the CEC is looking to counter,” Premier Jason Kenney’s press secretary, Christine Myatt, told the CBC’s Legislative reporter in an email.

“For example, we would not let those foreign-funded special interests seeking to attack our province see our detailed defence plans,” she continued, sticking to the government’s conspiracy theory – which was debunked by National Observer journalist Sandy Garossino on Oct. 3 as “flatly and demonstrably false.”

While concern about what opponents might discover may indeed be part of the reasoning behind the CECL scheme, one suspects the motives may be considerably murkier. Keeping Albertans from knowing on whom their money is being spent, for example.

Ted Morton, former finance minister of Alberta (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Of course, communications between the government and this new government department camouflaged by a bogus corporate structure could still be FOIPed, but I imagine efforts to avoid such scrutiny have also been considered.

Who can forget the 2011 case of the mysterious Frederick Lee, who turned out to be an alias used by former Conservative minster Ted Morton on an official government of Alberta email address to send and receive covert communications while he was minister of sustainable resource development? Frederick and Lee were Dr. Morton’s legal first and middle names.

I’m sure Mr. Rusnell who as it happens also broke the Freddy Lee email story will cast his FOIP net wide enough to capture any such emails from other Conservative Alberta politicians. If Google notices a flurry of new Gmail accounts being opened in Alberta, this may be the explanation.

CBC investigative reporter Charles Rusnell (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Meanwhile, Mr. Olsen’s chances of success in his new role were not rated highly yesterday by political observers, some of whom took the matter less seriously than others.

If a war room is to be judged by its general, this isn’t an encouraging sign,” tweeted Maclean’s Magazine writer Jason Markusoff. “Olsen was a journalist held in high esteem (by the gov’t of the day), a press secretary (who often mangled the message) and a Kenney UCP candidate (who lost, in Calgary).”

Political blogger Dave Cournoyer suggested more kindly last night that even a PR genius might have problems flogging the message CECL has been set up to promote.

“While it may be easy for Kenney to dismiss NGOs and suggest that the 4,000 Albertans participating in the climate strike protest outside the Legislature were communist sympathizers,” Cournoyer wrote on his blog, “Olsen’s war room will have a harder time dismissing its greatest opponent – the free market.”

After all, no matter how elaborate the conspiracy theories the Kenney Government has set up CECL to promote, global markets have decided global warming is real.

“Alberta risks becoming increasingly isolated on energy and climate issues on the national and international stage,” Mr. Cournoyer concluded.

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  1. Mr. Kenney probably knows one of his political strengths is creating the appearance of the type of action that appeals to the peconceptions of those inclined to support him.

    The sort of fight back message he often conveys, like turn off the taps to BC, works very well in the theoretical world where leaders of the opposition live. Opposition leaders propose much, but implement little, if anything.

    Where this strategy runs into problems is in the real world, where sweeping rhethoric meant to appeal to people, counts for little if the ideas proposed fail to work. A war room, or the more Orwellian name now chosen (it is still really an Alberta not a Canadian entity), only works if people outside are willing to believe what the message the Government of Alberta peddles. As the actions and messages of our government become less balanced and more extreme, its credibility diminishes accordingly beyond the Alberta border. Of course propaganda is as often aimed as much at the home front than the other side. However, Albertans may eventually begin to wonder about Mr. Kenney and his much vaunted war room if it fails to convince those outside of Alberta. Even worse, they may also eventually start to see this as a waste of money and start to question Kenney’s wisdom or motives. Perhaps Mr. Kenney will be off to greener pastures before most Albertans realize many of his grand ideas do not really work for anyone other than Mr. Kenney.

  2. The Kenney UCP, an evolving authoritarian populist government? Or, already there?
    “The rise of populist authoritarians. Elites must consider their responsisbility for the worldwide resurgence of strongmen.”
    “What is authoritarian populism and why it should be combatted”
    “If we are going to successfully fight and defeat the rise of authoritarian populist politics, we are going to need a vision of creating a new society beyond the state, class rule and capitalism. It is these systems that authoritarian populism ultimately defends.”
    For me, “folks who are keen on free speech, expression and accountability,” need to be, very, concerned. Will there be an awakening and pushback from the grassroots? What will it take?

  3. Interesting that the Calgary law firm Burnet, Duckworth & Palmer LLP is hosting this corporation. They seem to be the UCP’s go-to law firm on bitumen related litigation as well. In last month’s Federal Court ruling where BC successfully obtained an injunction against Alberta’s “turn off the taps” legislation (and Alberta lost its application to strike BC’s claim) the Alberta government was represented by 3 lawyers from the same firm. The full decision is here: British Columbia (Attorney General) v. Alberta (Attorney General), 2019 FC 1195 (CanLII). Incidentally I saw a few UCP apologists claiming the “turn off the taps” case didn’t cost Alberta taxpayers anything as government lawyers were used for the case. That claim, as you can see, was untrue. Also the BC government was awarded costs.

  4. The real sh*t will start to hit the fan when those voters throughout Alberta begin to see and feel the effects of the cuts that have begun (policing in rural areas to start) and will continue. Having lived in a hamlet that was already 20 to 25 minutes away from police and ambulance service (but great thanks the amazing guys of the volunteer fire brigade), it will be of great interest to keep up with what is happening in all the places with fewer than 5000 person populations. It will also be of interest when I wear my new T-shirt into “my” legislative building with the logo of “More Oil = More CO2 = More Heat”. I have no doubt that the ideology police will provide me a quick exit, which will be difficult with very bad knees on my part! What free speech??!!!

  5. Remember Albertans you voted for this. You knew, or ought to have known, this would happen, given all the RCMP investigations of UCP candidates and their closeted leader before you voted for this gang. How’s that new UCP government working for you residents of Vegreville? Perhaps, a new McDonald’s in your community would fix your problems.

    By the way, today is “Coming out” day.

    1. @Athabascan: “Remember Albertans you voted for this” … wholeheartedly agree. It’s past time Alberta, and Canadian, voters realized that elections have consequences. Gone are the days when you first voted one set of bums out, and another set in, and then relied on the powers of persuasion to get the government of the day to do things you wanted them to do — even if not part of their platform — and refrain from keeping the promises you didn’t want them to keep. This behaviour was characteristic of the classic brokerage politics that was the Canadian model up until fairly recently, but is no more. Now we are seeing more ideologically purist parties emerge on the right, opposed by the legacy Liberal parties that still adhere to the brokerage model in the centre, and weakly ideological or pragmatic social democratic parties on the left. This mismatch between pragmatism and ideology has led us to this point in history when a Canadian Prime Minister has to wear body armour & be surrounded by ostentatiously armed bodyguards — à la US Secret Service — during a campaign rally.

      How loud will the howling be when Mr Travis Toews brings down his budget next week, and whose oxen will be gored by it?

  6. How can a government open a private corporation and fund it entirely from public money? How are citizens supposed to know how much it receives from the public purse? The lack of oversight into public spending seems beyond the pale. One supposes the dank hands of lawyerdom have found a way to legalize nonsense.

    And is this “creation” planning on operating beyond Alberta’s borders, far away from the flocks of sheep resident therein? Spying from a provincial government? The whole thing seems like something that shouldn’t be allowed. A propaganda machine pushing a sub-country level government agenda with public money seems like a thorn in the belly of democracy, to say the least.

    As a Canadian, I’ll go on record as saying I strongly object.

  7. Man, ol’ Freddie Lee is creepy! Bring him back and put all the homosexual, bilingual communists who hate our oil on double-secret-probation!

  8. Editorial comment: Sandy Garossino writes for the National Observer, not the “Vancouver Observer”.

  9. Should not be totally transparent on the front end, but should have to divulge all spending at the end of every investigation.

    It should also carry (with any mis-management of the funds) an immediate disbanding of the CECL and all monies immediately re-invested in the province.

    As long as they are swift and relatively conservative on spending, and they are actually bringing forth verifiable truth I’m on board. Fritter away our cash on a guise you are helping us, and you are done.

    No more chances, regardless of political strip, we need more accountability from our politicians.

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